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GOP governor's debate set March 31 in Hall as race heats up
Georgia Governor's Mansion

As the gubernatorial debate in Hall County approaches, the knives are coming out among the Republicans running to replace Gov. Nathan Deal.

The Georgia 9th Congressional District is less than a week away from its only debate before the 2018 Republican primary. Seven candidates will take part in the debate at The Venue at Friendship Springs in Flowery Branch organized by the 9th District Republican Party.

While tickets are sold out, the Saturday, March 31, debate will be streamed online by The Times and staff at White County High School at Debate begins at 5:30 p.m.

Governors race debate

Who: Six Republican candidates for governor

When: 5:30 p.m. March 31

Where: The Venue at Friendship Springs, 7340 Friendship Springs Blvd., Flowery Branch

Watch live:

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Candidates include Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, restaurant owner Eddie Hayes, former state Sen. Hunter Hill, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, businessman Clay Tippins, state Sen. Michael Williams and teacher Marc Urbach. Greg Bluestein, a political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, will moderate the debate.

It’s the state’s first debate with all seven Republican candidates, said Rebecca Yardley, organizer and first vice chairwoman of the 9th District Republican Party. Questions were collected from attendees when they reserved their tickets and have been curated by the party and Bluestein.

The candidates won’t see the questions ahead of time, Yardley said, and they should expect no softballs.

“As plus-27, plus-29 conservative district, depending on which poll you’re looking at, I think you’re going to be very surprised at the questions that come out. They’re going to be fiscal conservative questions, smaller government questions,” Yardley said Saturday. “I think our constituent base here in the 9th is at the point where they no longer want the soft answers. They’re ready for you to get down into the nitty gritty and get those hardcore answers on how you’re going to maintain that smaller government, how you’re going to balance the budget.”

A meet-and-greet is scheduled after the debate to give attendees the chance to talk one-on-one with candidates.

Election dates

Registration deadline: April 24

Early voting: April 30-May 18

Saturday voting: May 12

Primary: May 22

Primary runoff: July 24

Election Day: Nov. 6

For the past few days, there’s been a good bit of one-on-one among the candidates themselves.

Debate season in the governor’s race has yielded fire among the camps: Tippins taking aim at Cagle for what Tippins said was an act of vengeance in the Capitol; Williams firing off at Hill for what Williams said was a poor record on gun rights; and recent poll that suggests the attacks might be pointless.

On Wednesday, Tippins accused Cagle of “political bullying” while visiting the Capitol. The former tech executive said one of his close supporters, Rep. David Clark, R-Macon, had a medical marijuana bill squashed by Cagle and his staff after Clark and Tippins appeared at a rally together. A member of Cagle’s staff denied taking any action on the bill behind the scenes in comments to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Meanwhile, Williams continues to lob bombs into the race. The Trump-style firebrand from Cumming took a shot at Hill for comments made during a candidate forum with both Republicans and Democrats at the 27th Annual Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary Conference earlier this month.

Williams slammed Hill for his grades from the National Rifle Association and said his record on the issue was “all over the place.”

“One day Hunter claims to support Constitutional Carry and the next day he echoes Democrat Stacey Abrams' call for gun control,” Williams said on Thursday. “His fake conservative campaign is becoming more obvious each day.”

Williams also accused Hill of saying he would support raising the minimum age to buy firearms to 21.

A video of the forum posted by Nydia Tisdale shows Hill being asked about the shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the call to regulate firearms by raising the minimum age to purchase guns to 21 and keeping them from the mentally ill.

Hill said restricting the Second Amendment empowers criminals and the government by taking guns away from law-abiding citizens.

“As it relates to the specific question, of course if we’re going to have gun laws we’ve got to have parity. If it’s 21 on a handgun it makes sense to make it 21 on the automatic weapons or the semi-automatic weapons,” he said. “But the reality is we can’t let this dialogue, this tragedy, undermine the future because we’re undermining the Second Amendment.”

He also opposed gun-free zones, saying they created soft targets for mass shooters.

Hill campaign staffer Cody Hall said the attack was coming from polling released in March that suggested the race was between Cagle and Hill.

“Desperate candidates like Michael Williams can't gain traction on their own merits, so they level false attacks at conservatives,” Hall said in a statement. “There's a reason Sen. Williams sits at 3 percent in the polls.”

But about those polls: Hill’s own internal polling shows that while he’s a strong second so far, Cagle is holding a huge lead.

“When factoring in head-to-head choices and undecided leanings, if the election were held today, Casey Cagle is currently in first place with 48 percent of the vote,” the poll’s analysis states. “Hunter Hill has eclipsed Brian Kemp for second place with a commanding 21 percent. Kemp has dropped from second place to a distant third at 15 percent. Clay Tippins comes in at 8 percent, within the margin of error with Williams as he struggles to maintain fourth place. Michael Williams is fifth at 7 percent.

Another poll released this month by Meeting Street Research, hired by Cagle, suggests Cagle’s hard stance on subsidies for Delta after its run-in with the NRA won him support in Georgia.

The poll showed total support for Cagle jumped from 31 percent in February to 38 percent in March after the Delta move. In Cagle’s poll, Kemp is in second place rather than Hill.

Both polls have margins of error between 4.3 and 4.5 percent.

Second place remains an important position if Cagle can’t clear 50 percent of the vote in the primary, which would force a runoff July 24 between the top-two candidates and give the No. 2 Republican a change to go head-to-head with Cagle.

The Republican primary is set for May 22.

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